Driving through a spring shower one afternoon, Amy McClure heard her then-3-year-old daughter call out from the back seat.
"Mommy, listen," K.C. exclaimed. "The rain is tickling the roof!"
Though most parents wouldn't think a preschooler was capable of making such an abstract comparison, Dr. McClure -- a professor of early childhood education at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, OH -- wasn't surprised. She'd been reading poetry to K.C. since she was a baby, so the preschooler was familiar with using metaphors to describe the world around her.
Poetry, long a staple of children's bookshelves, can do so much more than calm a cranky toddler or delight her with silly rhymes: It will also help her become a more sophisticated thinker. A simple verse can show a child how she might look at an everyday experience from a different perspective, says Dr. McClure, citing a line from a Rebecca Kai Dotlich poem, "Firefly," in which the poet likens chasing fireflies to catching "rhinestones in a jelly jar."
Also hidden in a poem's lilting lines is the natural power to help a child improve his memory and acquire those skills that lead to literacy. "Poetry can help children develop phonemic awareness -- the knowledge that words are made up of individual pieces of sound -- so much better than phonics games can," Dr. McClure adds. "While the games study sounds in isolation, a poem tells an entire story that helps children understand sentence structure and how words fit together." What's more, she says, poetry is simply more fun, which is key to engaging a child in an activity long enough for him to learn something.
The fun factor in poetry stems from its closeness to song. "Poetry is a natural extension of the lullabies that babies hear in the crib," says Shelley Harwayne, Ph.D., founding principal of the Manhattan New School in New York City. "Just as parents will memorize a radio jingle, kids will learn a favorite poem by heart when their parents read it aloud to them again and again." Soon, she says, children will pretend to read the poem by themselves, but eventually they'll begin to recognize the words on the page.
Though Dr. McClure advises parents to start their babies and toddlers with short, simple rhymes, as children get older it's perfectly fine -- and even recommended -- to read more complex poems to them (she likes Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Swing"). In fact, a new poetry collection to be published this October, titled The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, includes selections from Robert Frost, Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, and others that she read to her children when they were young. Though little ones won't yet have the skills to read these more sophisticated verses themselves, they'll still enjoy the flow of the sounds, which will make it easier to learn new words. Educators call this approach "scaffolding": building a support system for children as they learn. "Parents and teachers keep raising the bar, exposing a child to increasingly complex language and ideas, but the adults are always there to support the child if he gets stuck," Dr. McClure explains.
To best take advantage of poetry's benefits, make it a part of your child's daily life, says Kristine O'Connell George, the Agoura, CA-based author of several award-winning books of children's poetry, including Little Dog Poems, Old Elm Speaks, and the upcoming Book! She recommends five fun ways to weave poetry into your child's world.
1. Create a basket of poems. When you come across poems you like, jot them down on small pieces of paper and toss them into a pretty basket or box. The next time the kids are anxiously awaiting dinner, let them pick one poem for you to read to them.
2. Give poems as birthday-party favors. Help the birthday girl or boy choose special poems for particular friends: Paul Janeczko's collection, Very Best (Almost) Friends: Poems of Friendship, is a great place to look. Write the poem on colorful paper, have your child decorate it, roll it into a scroll, and tie it with a fancy ribbon.
3. Grow a poet-tree. Pick a tall, branchy houseplant at the local greenhouse (ficus trees work well) and decorate it with paper ornaments bearing verses that celebrate the wonders of the natural world. (Look for nature-themed poems in the Margaret Wise Brown collection, Mouse of My Heart.)
4. Tuck a poem into your child's lunchbox. Use food-oriented rhymes to inspire picky eaters -- George suggests Lee Bennett Hopkins's anthology, Yummy! Eating Through a Day. Or choose simple child-friendly verses, such as those found in Karla Kuskin's The Sky Is Always in the Sky, just to remind a child that you're thinking about her.
5. Get vocal. Record favorite poems in your family's own voices -- after all, poetry is meant to be read aloud. The youngest children can chime in on the refrains or recite simple nursery rhymes; let older kids make up their own. Take the tape in the car for read-alongs on long trips, or send it to Grandma and Grandpa and ask them to return the favor!